As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over those many first abysses,
now build the unimagined bridge’s
sternly calculated arc.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
When Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he considered two traditional methods of dream interpretation, to which he gave the names ‘symbolic’ and ‘cipher’. In the first, the dream as it is remembered upon waking is treated as a whole, and taken as an analogy for something else. In the second, each element in the dream is examined in turn and replaced with other contents, without the dream as a whole receiving consideration.
Freud’s own method is of the cipher type. Within a few sentences of introducing symbolic dream-interpretation, he dismisses it, claiming that it is no more than a literary device: “Most of the artificial dreams contrived by the poets are intended for some such symbolic interpretation.” Apparently, he never suspected that some of us are poets in our dreams, too.
But actually, Freud has presented us with a false dilemma– and, to my knowledge, nobody has since improved on it. His two methods, even as broadly as he outlined them, do not exhaust the possibilities of dream interpretation. Further, we cannot take it as a given that there is only one valid method to be discovered—or, for that matter, even one valid method. We will return to Freud later. An investigation must begin with something even more basic than methodology: our reasons for practicing dream interpretation, and what we hope to gain from it.
To many of us, it is immediately obvious that our dreams are meaningful. That is to say, that our dreams are—in order of decreasing scientific consensus—not random, personally relevant, possessing their own internal logic, and, in some cases, representative of something larger than our waking selves. It is this intuition that leads people to study dream interpretation, for despite the immediacy with which we realize dreams are meaningful, the precise relationship they bear with our waking selves and lives is far from obvious.
It is that promise of something larger than ourselves that fuels most efforts at dream-interpretation. Interpreters hope to discover a source of affirmation, guidance, and knowledge that lies beyond doubt—a higher power or inner self whose message would be unambiguous if we could only understand it properly. I suppose there must be some casual adventurers among the ranks of interpreters, but it mostly seems to attract people for whom the stakes are very high, if not actually ultimate. Dreaming is effortless, but everything else requires a good deal of footwork, and there are more rewarding occupations than being a civil engineer of the spirit.
I’ve found it rewarding—but not for the reasons I started out with, which I suppose were the usual ones. Others also seem to find it rewarding, but I usually take issue with their workmanship, and find reason to suspect that the criteria of success have been changed to match the finished project somewhere along the way. And so I feel obliged to raise the question of whether the business of interpretation is worthwhile.
To Freud, it was worthwhile because he considered dreams a medium of pure projection, and so a useful diagnostic tool; to Jung, it was worthwhile both as a diagnostic tool and as a path to personal wholeness; to many psychologists, it is a means of self-knowledge and healing. It isn’t that I doubt that dreams can be used for these purposes, but that I think there are probably surer paths and better tools.
But even if we can’t have Bifrost and the forge of Hephaestus—and we certainly can’t build them—we should take some care in considering our options. Being a careless interpreter implies disrespect for both ourselves and our dreams.
Keeping this in mind is all the more important for those of us who have received an invitation to explore the dreaming mind—to have been invited by our dreams themselves, or maybe to have received something a little less polite than an invitation.
I don’t think we should be afraid of the unknown, but I think we ought to respect it.